Written by Aven Frey. Republished from Sightline Institute with permission.
Esteemed climate communicator Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is back on the lecture circuit with a new talk, which I was lucky enough to catch at the University of Washington in mid-May. Dr. Hayhoe’s life and credentials make her uniquely suited to bridge divides and speak from the heart about climate science: She’s a Canadian expat in Texas, an atmospheric scientist and political scientist at Texas Tech, and an Evangelical Christian. She’s produced a trove of stellar science and messaging resources. We’ve shared her climate communication tips before, and her message hasn’t changed: Climate change is real. It’s us. It’s bad. And there are all kinds of solutions.
But conversations about climate aren’t always so simple.
Increasing numbers of Americans, liberal and conservative, say they are worried about climate change, but too many (including plenty of the people in charge, elected or otherwise) are in different stages of complacency or compartmentalization—or denial. Dr. Hayhoe says the best thing we can do is talk about climate change more with people we know—and in personal terms. She reminds us to start with values, not facts. Piling on more facts and data doesn’t work and can even backfire. Why?
“Because when it comes to climate change,” she wrote recently in Science, ”science-y sounding objections are a mere smokescreen to hide the real reasons, which have much more to do with identity and ideology than data and facts.”
When people feel that the policy solutions challenge their fundamental beliefs (government regulations, taxes, or restrictions on consumption), it’s easier to find a way to reject the science. In fact, the best predictor of whether a person acknowledges the reality of human-caused global warming is their political identity, not their scientific knowledge.
Partisanship compounds other barriers. For some, there’s a sense that “only a certain kind of person” cares about climate change. Numbers are growing, but many Americans aren’t aware of the scientific consensus about man-made climate change (a powerful “gateway belief” that could move the needle on other climate attitudes.) For others, feeling there’s nothing we can do about it can lead to apathy or paralysis. This
number is growing too, but most Americans don’t think climate impacts will affect them personally.
So, where to begin? According to Dr. Hayhoe, one of the most powerful things we as individuals can do to fight climate change is simple--talk to people about climate change. The truth is that most Americans rarely discuss global warming themselves and a majority say they hear little about it in the media.
Dr. Hayhoe challenges all of us to have more climate conversations. Here’s her three-part formula for relevant, constructive, and hopeful climate talk.
First, says Dr. Hayhoe, find common ground. In other words, start by finding values, concerns, and experiences you share (not with a barrage of facts and figures).
“As uncomfortable as this is for a scientist in today’s world,” Dr. Hayhoe writes, “the most effective thing I’ve done is to let people know that I am a Christian. Why? Because it’s essential to connect the impacts of a changing climate directly to what’s already meaningful in one’s life, and for many people, faith is central to who they are.”
Religious or not, she reminds us that “nearly every human on the planet already has the values they need to care about climate change.” She suggests finding genuine ways to connect with others—bonding over a shared love of gardening or health concerns or a shared interest in national security. Building trust helps breaks down walls built up by partisanship.
Find personal, relevant ways to show why climate matters. Dr. Hayhoe suggests connecting heart to head: talk about how climate change matters to the people and places we care about. Help people see how the science relates to your shared everyday experiences. It’s not about polar bears and ice caps—it’s about us, right here at home. Talk about local climate impacts and what they’ve meant for real people.
For example, Dr. Hayhoe knows her Texan neighbors are acutely aware of the devastating impacts of drought on their state, and since climate change is making droughts more severe, she links the science to their existing concerns. You could talk about health problems exacerbated by heat or pollution. Or maybe you both like the same Northwest brews—climate change affects beer, too!
Demonstrate how real-life climate solutions are working. If we only talk about the daunting challenge of climate change or the difficult impacts without offering hopeful solutions, Dr. Hayhoe warns, then people’s natural defense mechanism is to disassociate from the reality of the problem. To change minds and bring people aboard, we can’t forget this third step: inspiring with practical, viable, and attractive solutions. People get excited about technology and efficiency. In fact, seven out of 10 Americans support prioritizing renewable energy like wind and solar, over oil, coal, and natural gas, according to an April 2018 Gallup poll. But most of us don’t necessarily know about solutions working for people and communities in our neighborhood or our state. When you’re talking about solutions, your conversation isn’t about science anymore, but about working together to solve this problem in ways that resonate with the shared values you’ve established.
For example, Dr. Hayhoe capitalizes on Texas state pride, and gets people’s attention by pointing out that the state is already a leader in wind energy production (and if you don’t believe they take pride in this, check out the title of the linked article), and boasting that three of the nation’s top ten cities for solar power potential are in Texas. Dr. Hayhoe knows people in her neighborhood not only admire her efficient plug-in electric car once they know how much money she saves on gas, but love the idea of taking advantage of Texas’ vast wealth of renewable energy potential to save Texas families money on energy bills and taxes, and to create local jobs, and help to ease the devastating droughts made longer and more severe by a changing climate.
These three steps make for easier, more powerful climate conversations. And Dr. Hayhoe challenges us all to go out and have those conversations! When you’re ready to try it out for yourself, here’s our cheat sheet:
Mixing Unconference Model elements into SCIENCE TALK '19
Science Talk wants to be responsive to the needs and interests of our conference attendees. So, this year, we are trying out a new conference organization idea. We hope that the change will address the programming concerns that we and the attendees have voiced and allow everyone to go home feeling satisfied and inspired.
For the past two years, responses to attendee surveys for the very large part have been positive, suggesting people who come to the conference enjoy the programming. However, not all presenters or program sessions have hit the mark as far as content and style. There are a few reasons for this.
First, programming at the annual SCIENCE TALK conference has (so far) been determined by a small group of experienced and connected organizers. This has been fine historically, but it means the programming itself is also limited by the organizers’ network of connections and their ideas. Moving into the future the conference will need new people and new ideas to remain vibrant and valuable.
Which leads to point number two: Science communications is a broad banner that includes many specializations, AND many people at various points in their careers. How does one small conference accommodate everyone?
The answer is by building a community.
Therefore, this year we are changing things up and need our community’s help to create an inclusive event where everyone can be involved and feel enabled for success.
Our new model is a conference-unconference hybrid. It is similar to a traditional conference in that the Programming Committee will continue to organize the overall conference schedule, coordinate details, and invite Keynote speakers. However, like an unconference, the specific programming (the who and the what) is initially up to the people who will come to the conference. This puts the attendee at the center of the conference - you decide what sessions best serve your needs, and together we will create a dynamic program.
Here’s how it will work:
Who is involved:
We are making this change in the hopes that by opening up the program to proposals from the community new ideas (the best ideas) and people will surface, and keep the conference fresh and exciting to as many as possible. We hope this allows our community to develop and grow in a vibrant and inclusive way that benefits the entire science communications field.
There will be questions. As they come in, we will answer them as best we can and create an FAQ as a resource to everyone.
A research-biologist-turned-science-communicator forays into explaining complex ideas with an unfamiliar medium: video
Each idea, no matter how well-crafted, is best received when tailored to a narrow, specific audience. All the complicated jargon is great—for those that understand it... But, everyone else WILL glaze over and think about a chocolatey snack, the song stuck in their head, or their to-do list.
I tackled the topic “What is Climate?” for an audience of 11-year-old students for the annual Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Flame Challenge. Hundreds of scientists participate by submitting their written, video, or graphical answer to the question. Schools across the world receive entries and judge them for what they think are the best answers. Finalists visit New York City to be part of the World Science Festival and meet the M.A.S.H. actor and supporter of science communication--Alan Alda.
Having entered the written challenge in the past (What is Sound and What is Energy) I wanted to try something new: a video. Click here to watch along as I talk about my process.
Where to start?
What would an 11-year-old want to see? What can they relate to? What do they already know? And most importantly, what will hold their interest?
Luckily for me, the topic “what is climate?” was announced right before I was about to embark on a journey to the arctic north of Sweden. I knew I wanted to use visuals the kids will likely not have seen before—Arctic snow. But how could I anchor that to climate in a way they can understand?
My friend, who completed her doctoral work studying Arctic and Antarctic ecology, taught me lots about my upcoming travel destination. What stuck with me was that Arctic trees are smaller, better suited for the harsh conditions. I thought how different Arctic trees are from the California Giant Sequoias…and thus I had a storyline. My anchor was literally rooted in the ground!
I wanted to capture the stark differences between the Californian and Swedish climates. I figured the imagery would suit kids as well as adults. However, vaguely talking about climate with cool video was not enough.
After an overhaul, I sent out a new version. This time my feedback was more in-depth. People were a little lost with what I was saying about weather being part of climate. Some also suggested I condense the content, not repeat certain parts as much, and add music.
So, I went back to the editing software, Lightworks, a free program anyone can use to create videos.
Venn diagrams are a great tool for kids to compare topics. I drew more seasons and circles to delineate my more complex topics.
I wanted to include more than just drawings; I have many captivating items around my house, why not use them! “Spring” features a mixture glass flowers, a real flower encased in plastic, and artistic butterfly magnets. “Winter” has a snow man I made when I was 9—thanks ma for randomly sending me that throwback photo earlier in the year!
Once I had the concept down, I first included the trees from earlier in the video, then expanded to the new seasons and their different weather conditions. This introduced the topic that I would use later in the video to show the culmination of years. Again, I was pulling on classroom teaching techniques of introducing an idea before explaining it so when the topic is more fully explained, the viewer already has some familiarity with it.
Fun Fact: Each year in the climate change section of the video was a year I moved from one city to another—ending with the year I was born. This also matches the statement that climate could have changed in my lifetime. The idea stemmed from trying to start with years the kids could remember in their lifetimes (2018, 2015, & 2014 – a.k.a. ages 11, 8, & 7), and then space the years further apart, including the year they were likely born (2006).
Finally, I cannot emphasize what a difference the music made! Music can be downloaded and used for free from YouTube, or FreeMusicArchive.org. To help the music changes match my video, I used Adobe Audition, though free sound editing software like Audacity work, too.
While creating the video, I knew I wanted people to watch it more than once. I wanted them to learn things the second time they may have missed. I wanted them to focus on the imagery one time, my words another time, and the drawings in yet another viewing.
I figured, if I could keep viewers entertained, I could teach them something new. It’s gotten the attention of children and adults alike. I tried to keep my energy high and slip in facts without viewers having to think about it. In the first version, my main message was “weather and climate are different”. But I also needed to keep the attention of the more advanced 11-year olds. For those who wanted to dig deeper, I hinted at even more factors of climate—like listing the atmospheric gases that play a role in climate change. I went back over some of my key points and left with a little humor, walking my pet tree.
Hopefully I taught the kids something new. I know I learned about climate myself from making the video. I also learned about how to create videos in general; it was my first attempt at a project like this. Checking my main audience was key…as well as fact-checking!
Now, it is up to the students to decide. I encourage you to watch videos about science communication on the Alan Alda Science Communication website to learn about targeting an audience, not using jargon, and keeping the beginning and ending exciting.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication focused on college and university faculty members and administrators, just featured Science Talk! The Chronicle reaches over 215,000 readers and has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Read the article here, called "As Scientists Speak Out About Science, Women and Young Scholars Lead the Way".
More than a decade ago, I left the commercial advertising business and joined the nonprofit world as the marketing director for an environmental conservation organization. To prepare for my first assignment (updating the board of trustees on ongoing projects), I was given a stack of project reports chock-full of details on implementation sites, baseline and post-project survey results, species and ecosystem health assessments, and a list of every activity implemented over a two-year period.
I read through all these reports, each at least 100 pages long, stumbling through new terminology and with my head spinning with questions:
Do these figures represent progress and achievements? What are we learning? What story can I tell? What will my readers care about most?
My readers were time-strapped and non-technical, and it felt like I was trying to shove a giant square peg of data into a small round hole of attention spans. I felt frustrated by those who wrote the reports and wondered why it was so hard to find the story among all the figures.
Sitting on the other side of the table
Later in my career, when I was managing a suite of these same projects, I was the one receiving questions from the marketing team on “what’s a story we can tell?” My initial instinct was to give a snarky response that the story is in the 250-page report I spent the previous three months writing. Now from the other side of the table, I felt frustrated that they couldn’t see the stories right in front of them.
Yet I also knew how incredibly important it was to share these stories and results with a wider audience, and how challenging it can be to do so. Furthering an organization’s mission requires a steady stream of funding and support. But it’s getting harder to catch an audience's attention, and there’s growing competition for members, followers, and donor dollars. This is a tall order for any organization.
Standing out requires creating stronger connections to the work you do and showing proof of the impact you’re having — all delivered through easily absorbed and entertaining stories.
Tips for telling stories
Here are some tips I’ve learned for how to best represent data and facts in ways that are both interesting and accurate.
Speak to the audience. Not to yourselves.
Your audience is not as familiar with the issue or topic as you are. And you can’t expect them to be. Therefore, it’s important to speak to them on their terms, in their language, and focusing on what is most interesting to them. Remove jargon, get to the point quickly, keep it simple, and be clear on what you’re asking them to do.
Make the project meaningful
When trying to get your readers’ attention, and especially when asking for donations, stories must answer this fundamental question for the audience: why should I care about this? We want to believe that our readers always care, but they won’t care to the extent that you do. We have to give them a reason to care (note: that does not say we have to convince them to care). People care most when an issue impacts them or their family, the places they live in, or the things they like and depend upon.
Comparisons over details
Your audience may not be able to grasp certain figures that are not used in their daily lives, such as number of hectares, or number of kilometers traveled, or percentages of a population impacted. To make the data more relevant, draw an analogy to something they are familiar with. Hectares can be related to the size of a state or country; kilometers compared to traveling from one state to another; and percentages can instead be framed as 1 in X number of people. Drawing these analogies prevents the reader from glossing over facts they don’t understand and instead highlights the scale of the project in relatable ways.
Show more than tell
Data can be really exciting and eye-catching when presented in a visual format. And I don’t mean turn it into a bar graph or pie chart, either! Marketing and technical teams can work together to create infographics, engaging icons, and videos that bring the results to life. Not only does this approach paint a clearer picture, but it also makes it more easily digestible and more likely to be shared with others.
Leave some things out
It’s okay to leave out some details, including the specific research methodology used. It’s ideal to have that data available and accessible for those who want to dig in, but it doesn’t need to be in the main story. I know this can be excruciating, especially when a ton of work has gone into the research and the project, but most people don’t need (or want) to see it. Focus the main story on what will be most compelling and interesting for your audience.
Writing data-driven, engaging stories will catch your readers’ attention, create stronger connections to the work you’re doing, and motivate them to take action.
Brooke Tully supports non-profits design marketing plans that propel social change. She also produces a newsletter with marketing and behavior insights for brooke’s2cents subscribers.
I always feel sad when I see an ad that gets me energized and excited to support a cause, only to be left not knowing what I can do to support that cause. I get worked up, I get jazzed, I’m ready to do something but I have no place to channel or direct that energy in a productive way. Which means, in the end, I will likely forget about the cause and go about my normal course of activities.
And it’s not because those causes didn’t include a call-to-action in their ads. It’s because they didn’t include a specific call-to-action or “ask”.
Many of these ads tell me to do something like: SAVE THE OCEANS! REDUCE YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT! START WITH ONE THING! (that drives me to a website that features a list of 1,000 one-things I could do)
These asks are way too broad and vague. I get excited, but I have no idea HOW to reduce my carbon footprint, or HOW to save the oceans, or WHAT specifically I can do to help.
It’s human nature to not act
People are extremely busy creatures. They don’t have the time to, or the interest in, researching various issues to understand what actions they can take to contribute to a cause. And when your audience feels overwhelmed or unsure of what to do, then it’s extremely likely they won’t do anything at all.
IT’S HUMAN NATURE: Unless you tell us specifically what to do, then we’re likely not going to do it.
It takes more energy to do something – to act – than to do nothing. I know that seems SUPER obvious, but it’s important to not forget that fact (called “inertia” for the human behavior geeks out there).
Therefore, it’s important to make your “ask” very specific and clear to your audience so they know what to do, and they do it.
Being clear and specific means focusing on a single “ask”
Of the list of actions you want your audience to take, pick one thing to ask them to do. And make it something they can actually do!
I know it will feel too difficult, and like too much of a trade-off, to select only one thing to ask your audience to do. But it’s a critical decision to make if you want to move people to act. Pick the most urgent one, or the easiest one to get people to start acting, or the most relevant one to the time of year.
Ask your audience to do specific things like:
If you have a laundry list of asks, then switch out your call-to-action with another action in 2 months’ time. But keep your messages and “asks” to only one action at a time.
There is ALWAYS an “ask”
Do you feel like you’re just trying to raise awareness and you don’t have a specific “ask”? Then, you should STILL include an “ask” of your audience! If your main goal is to raise awareness, then there are smaller things you can ask of your audience to engage them and spread the messages further.
ASK your audience to do something and be crystal clear about what it is you want them to do. Need help figuring out the one, specific ask? Then drop me an email and we'll work on it together.
In today’s world, it feels that scientific facts are increasingly under attack. As scientists, it’s tempting to reply by quoting impressive figures and statistics, brandishing our graphs, trying to win the argument.
But winning the argument isn’t the same as winning the person.
In a piece for Naturejobs by Dr. Eileen Parkes of Queen's University Belfast, she argues that winning hearts is key to good scientific communication. By pouring our energy into understanding the hopes, fears and dreams of others, we can connect on a personal level, leading to a real change of hearts and minds.
Read the whole piece here.
Dr. Eileen Parkes
Clinical postdoctoral fellow, Medical Oncology
Queen's University Belfast
In the public’s view microbiology is an abstract science that is not easily seen nor understood.
To help visualize the science, many microbiology instructors do a basic experiment on the first day of class – environmental swabs. Using what is essentially a fancy Q-tip®, students swab cell phones, backpacks, table tops, and water bottles. Anything people can touch is fair game, the list of potential surfaces goes on and on. The swabs are then smeared on a glass plate and left to “grow.”
You’re standing at the lectern, ready to deliver the opening lines of your talk. What do you say first?
If this is a conference talk, chances are you start by thanking the organizers for inviting you to speak, then the audience…or if it’s a seminar, you might start with how happy you are to be there…blah blah blah. BORING!
I recently gave a presentation on how to talk science to normal people. After I finished there was the usual question and answer. One of the audience asked me a fairly simple question, which I sadly fumbled. "How do you explain scientific consensus to someone who doesn't agree?" I don't remember the rambling answer I gave at the time, but the question has been stuck with me ever since. I finally came up with what I think is a pretty decent answer and it involves cake.
You have something to say about science communication and looking for a good forum? We got your back, we accept submissions. Email us your inquiry and we'll discuss the details.